Reflections on Shuffle-Play

Beverly suffers from multiple sclerosis.  She’s been confined to a bed for the last twenty-five years or so.  She can still move her hands and turn her head but relies on caregivers at the nursing home for everything else.

Josh is twenty-four years old.  He has muscular dystrophy and soon will require a ventilator to breathe.  He has been in a motorized wheelchair for the last ten years.  He wasn’t supposed to live even this long.  He is lovingly cared for by his parents in their home.

In the gospel of Matthew (9:20) there is a sense of relief for the woman with the hemorrhage who suffered for twelve years before she came into contact with Jesus and he cured her.  She suffered long and ached to be free of this condition that probably rendered her as unclean and thus forced to be apart from her family and other loved ones the whole time she endured it.

But frankly, Beverly or Josh or anyone with a lifelong illness would probably be thankful to have a disease that only lasted twelve years.  Why hasn’t Jesus yet said to all who suffer, “Take heart, your faith has made you well?”

We can’t help but struggle with serious questions of faith when we see suffering all around:  Disease never goes away.  War kills too many.  Poverty strangles the life out of hungry children.  Another shooting, this time in a church, strips away 26 lives on a Sunday morning. We cry out until we are hoarse – “Where is the justice?  Where is the healing? Where is the miracle?”

The best answers to questions like these aren’t ours to have yet.  Faith has never been about seeing miracles.  Faith is about not quite being able to shake our doubts and questions from one hand, and grasping tightly, even desperately onto the hem of Jesus’ robe with the other.



By the Northern Pikes

Once depression walked through my door
Open loving arms and open loving legs
Homeless in Winnipeg
Completely caught me off guard
Safely loved like two splints on a broken leg
Would ya hate to see me beg

Once upon a time avec ma chérie
I never questioned life
I never twisted knives
I always would survive

And I’ll ask myself why
No I can’t believe it’s true
After three million fights
I’m still in love with you
I can’t believe it’s dwindled away
To a forced “hello. ya I’ll see you someday”
Let me be your tornado
Like I did that summer day
I swept you off your feet
Dust never tasted so sweet
Completely caught you off guard
You’re walking west and feeling east
I’m lonely at your feet
So lonely at your feet

Once upon a time avec ma chérie
I never questioned life
I never twisted knives
I always would survive

And I’ll ask myself why
No I can’t believe it’s true
After three million fights
I’m still in love with you
I can’t believe it’s dwindled away
To a forced “hello. ya I’ll see you someday”
We will look back to the evidence
And blatant testimony
We will react… ooh, ooh
And I’ll ask myself why
No I can’t believe it’s true
After three million fights
I’m still in love with you
I can’t believe it’s dwindled away
To a forced “hello. ya I’ll see you someday”
I can’t believe




All that We Let In

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

Winter seems to have started early this year. Some years we can squeeze in some warmish days even in November, but not this year. By the end of October, snow began to slip down from the sky now and then and by the time November started, it wasn’t melting away between snowfalls. Today as I look out my sunroom window, the field is covered with snow with just a few clumps of dirt poking through. The sky is gray, the trees are a darker gray, the snow is white. Gray and white are the only colors of this day.

A friend of mine who has always lived in Minnesota was wondering in a Facebook post why in the world he still lives here. His tone was weary and any of us who live here can understand it. It takes a certain amount of tenacity to live here. One has to be able to find the good in this long, cold season it and that is hard for those who don’t like ice fishing, snowmobiling, skiing, sledding, etc. Personally, I’m not a fan of any of those things either – but this year my younger son and I have committed to trying snowshoeing. Maybe that will be our ticket to getting outside a bit more this year.

This is only my third winter back in Minnesota. I was away for 16 years – western New York (where the winters were worse than here), Colorado (where winters were about perfect – snow but also a lot of sunshine), and Texas (where it could easily be in the 80’s on Christmas Day). Each year as the “snow birds” in my congregation leave to head south for the winter, I wonder if I’m going to get to the point someday where I just can’t stand the winters and I decide to move away because of them. Admittedly, when we moved to Texas, part of the seduction was that when we went to interview at the church it was February and while we were still wearing winter coats in Colorado, the grass was green and flowers were beginning to bloom in Texas. It was nice to have five years of warm and hot weather, even though the summers were tough to take. There was no way to enjoy being outside on a summer day until after the sun went down, and it seemed sad to me that the months my kids were out of school, it was nearly impossible to be outside. The boys couldn’t run around barefoot in our yard because of the fire ants. Rattlesnakes were always a possibility. However, being able to be outside in short sleeves in January now and then was pretty wonderful. After a few years there, I was surprised that I got to a point where I longed for a good blizzard. I didn’t think it could be possible, but I eventually missed winter. I missed a good ‘snow day.’ I never missed driving on icy roads, but I missed winter.

I missed the great diversity of seasons that Minnesota has in abundance: bundling up and heading outside when snow is falling in fat, wet snowflakes, the first Spring days when the sun is just beginning to gather her strength again and people eagerly strip off the long layers to soak in as much Vitamin D as possible, summer days by the lakeshore when everyone is outside and lingering in conversation, the onset of crisp Autumn and the leaves so colorful it takes your breath away.  It’s all these times and seasons and the moments in-between that make Minnesota fine by me. Each of these seasons strike up memories for me because they are the same seasons I shared with my parents and friends when I was growing up. People who grew up other places don’t understand it the way we do – how the snow can squeak and the air sounds tinny when it gets cold enough, how your heart aches to watch a perfect summer day come to an end because you know how precious those days are, how there is no smell as sweet and good as peonies and lilacs on a May morning, and the immensely bittersweet days of an “Indian Summer” in October. I wanted my kids to understand this language, the difficulty and beauty of living in a place like this.

There are pluses and minuses to wherever you go. While I lived in Colorado and New York and Texas, whenever I vacationed, I came back to Minnesota, because this was where my parents were. Now that I live in Minnesota, I can vacation anywhere I want – I see more different places now. Since we moved back here we have traveled to Norway a couple times, the Black Hills, Montana, and I get to see my friends so much more often. I like that. I can plan things with my brother and his family who live only 45 minutes away and if the plans fall through it is no big deal because I will be able to see them again soon. It isn’t like a yearly trip back when everything hinges on being able to cram as many visits with as many loved ones into the few days I am back.

I’m glad my home is here now, but I am also glad I lived away for a while. I needed to do that. I needed to know that I could go away and create a life for myself elsewhere, experience other places, really get to know the culture of other locations. That was important to me. I’m glad my kids have lived somewhere else – but I’m thankful we could come back. I’m thankful my parents’ graves are only an hour away and I can go visit them and the place I grew up anytime I want. I’m glad my kids have a connection to my past and to my husband’s past by living in the state where we grew up. However, because they weren’t born here, they know they don’t always have to stay. They know I might not always stay. I tell them that we are here for now and that I hope it will be a good long while. I would like them to not move again until after high school. I would like them to have the sense that they have roots somewhere. I would like to invest in this church for a good long time and see what we can build together by the grace of God. But I’m open to that someday I might be called away. The Spirit is always at work and I want to be open to the motion of that Spirit, but for now, I’m so glad to call this cold, snowy place ‘home’.

I’m committed to taking these winter days one at a time. They can’t be rushed, and while sometimes it might seem difficult to find something to savor in them, I’m interested in trying. We bake cookies and bread, I spend more time writing, I remind myself that Spring will come but now is the time to be in winter, I give thanks for my warm home and that I have a commute of 200 paces up to the church.  I keep an eye on the weather and try to be out and about when it looks like the roads will be dry. One of my favorite things is how during the dead of winter when there has been a series of snowy, icy days, the first day that the roads are dry – no matter how bitter cold it is – people come flooding out of their houses again. The stores are full, the restaurants and churches are full – everyone gets out while they can to see other people and see some different scenery before the next snowstorm hits. There is a certain sense of camaraderie about it.

Wherever you go, there you are. There is so much to love about each place.

In Colorado, I climbed mountains on my day off. The sky was brilliantly blue most days and it was hardly ever below zero degrees. The spirit of the people there was so free and I felt at home there. Most everyone I knew there had transplanted there from somewhere else. It was easy to find a community in a place where everyone was searching for community.

In Texas, the bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush and all the wildflowers of the Spring were indescribably gorgeous. I could go running outside any day of the year and it was never too cold, and in the summers I just had to wait until the sun went down and the temperature was tamed a bit. There is no other place I have lived that was so wild, proud, and different from where I grew up.

Western New York was green and the air was thick like soup in the summertime. I drove up to Toronto all the time, I smoked one million cigarettes. The people were hip and interesting. They were also hearty people who all knew how to drive in extreme winter. They had a biting sense of humor I didn’t understand.

I have called all these places home and I was glad to do it while I did. I’m so grateful for all that came to my life because of those places and the people I met there. And it is good to call this winter place home again.


All that We Let In

By the Indigo Girls

Dust in our eyes our own boots kicked up
Heartsick we nursed along the way we picked up
You may not see it when it’s sticking to your skin
But we’re better off for all that we let in

Lost friends and loved ones much too young
So much promises and work left undone
When all that guards us is a single centerline
And the brutal crossing over when it’s time

(I don’t know where it all begins)
(And I don’t know where it all will end)
(We’re better off for all that we let in)

One day those toughies will be withered up and bent
The father son the holy warriors and the president
With glory days of put up dukes for all the world to see
Beaten into submission in the name of the free

We’re in a nevolution I have heard it said
Everyone’s so busy now but do we move ahead
The planets hurting and atoms splitting
And a sweater for your love you sit there knitting

(I don’t know where it all begins)
(And I don’t know where it all will end)
(We’re better off for all that we let in)

See those crosses on the side of the road
Tied with ribbons in the medium
They make me grateful I can go this far
Lay me down and never wake me up again

Kat writes a poem and she sticks it on my truck
We don’t believe in war and we don’t believe in luck
The birds were calling to her what were they saying
As the gate blew open the tops of the trees were swaying

I’ve passed the cemetery walk my dog down there
I read the names in stone and say a silent prayer
When I get home you’re cooking supper on the stove
And the greatest gift of life is to know love

(I don’t know where it all begins)
(And I don’t know where it all will end)
(We’re better off for all that we let in)




So It Goes

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

All Saints Sunday is celebrated on the closest Sunday on or after All Saints Day, November 1st. It is a day to remember all the Saints, known and unknown. November 2nd is All Souls day, a day to remember those who have died. Christian celebration of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day stems from a belief that there is a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven and those still on earth. In many congregations, the names of those members of the congregation who have died in the last year are lifted up. In my church this Sunday, we’ll have a chance to light candles in memory of loved ones who have died. During the communion portion of the service, congregants can visit tables on either side of the sanctuary which have large bowls of sand and baskets of candles. They can light as many candles as they wish and then those candles will then burn for the rest of the service as we remember those lives and way we are mystically knit together still beyond time and space.

It’s important to take time for remembering in ways such as this.  There has to be time set aside to honor those relationships God gave us even though we can’t see or talk to one another in the same way anymore. There simply must be a space we can allow to keep remembering – because our need for remembering doesn’t end when the last breath is taken or when the memorial service is over or when the grave has been filled in or when the ashes have been spread. Grief goes on and our need to remember goes on. All Saints Sunday is a beautiful time to do that.

I came across a quote recently that has stuck with me. It reads, “Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.” I couldn’t find the author of that, but I thought it was beautiful, because that’s how grief feels, doesn’t it? Just because these people we love come to the end of their days, our love for them doesn’t. And yet suddenly they aren’t around to share those day to day things – the phone calls, the “Hey, did I tell you about this thing I was thinking about?,” the tiny and medium and huge thoughts that make up our days and weeks and months – we don’t get to share them in the same way anymore. And it’s deeply painful to still feel so much love inside but not be able to share it with the person you love. Grief hurts.

Grieving is necessary and there is no right or wrong way to do it. Some need to cry and wallow for a while, some need to stay busy and distracted, some find great meaning in creating a legacy in memory of their loved ones. Friends of mine in Texas whose son died at the age of 17 from the flu in 2014 created a scholarship in memory of their son. Their grief continues, but they are comforted that their son’s name accompanies this scholarship which continues to help other young people.

There are so many ways to honor our important relationships even after death. I recall the story from last year during the World Series when a man traveled 600 miles, from North Carolina to Chicago, to listen to the last World Series game at his father’s graveside. His father had been a lifelong Cubs fan and would always listen to games with his sons. They promised each other that when the cubs won the World Series, no matter when, they would listen to the game together.

Any of us who have lost someone with whom we still had unfinished business, unfinished activities we wanted to do together, we understand this thing he did. So often we look for ways to still feel connected to those who have died – we remember them when it’s time to bake the Christmas cookies, when you go out to eat at the place where you used to meet and talk, when that birthday or anniversary comes and goes.

At the school where my children attend, every year they celebrate a “Grandparents Day” when grandparents are invited to come to the school for special activities. Since my kids don’t have any grandparents still alive, in past years we have invited their aunt and uncle to come and it has been nice, but this year both my boys said they “didn’t feel good” the morning of Grandparents Day. Neither of my kids are prone to “crying wolf” so I listened to them and let them stay home. However, when I came home from the office at noon, they were running around the house and obviously feeling physically fine. So, I took them out to lunch and we had our own “Grandparents’ Day.” I made a quiz for them of twenty questions about their grandparents. Which grandparent loved Almond Joy candy bars? Which grandparent had the middle name “Cecil?” What did Grandma Dottie do for a living? They loved the questions and kept asking for more and we spent over an hour in the Chinese Restaurant in the strip mall in Moorhead just talking about these beloved members of our family who my boys barely got to meet, yet whom we love dearly. While the purpose was to help my boys know and remember things about their grandparents, the process was therapeutic for me, too.

As we support one another through the losses that inevitably come with life, give one another opportunities to still speak about the loved one they lost. A friend did that for me this past week. She knew around this time of year comes the anniversary of my mom’s death and she called and after we talked for a bit, she said, “Ruth, tell me about your mom.” And for a few minutes I can’t tell you how nice it was to just have this space to speak out loud for a bit about the things that made her uniquely my mom. Oh the little things – like how she loved candy, how she liked to sit outside and enjoy the quiet, how she was the easiest person in the world to be around, how her laugh made everything better. Those were healing moments my friend gave to me – just by asking me to remember my mom out loud for a bit.

Perhaps one of our prayers this All Saints Sunday could be that God help all of us to remember to be mindful of each other and how we can gently accompany each other through the terrain of loss. This can be especially important as the holidays are coming around again and it is often this time of year that people feel the absence of those who have died most keenly.

But on All Saints Sunday we remember that while the pain of grief and separation is real, what is also real is that we are connected to one another for keeps. In churches like the one I serve, the old Scandinavian altar rails tell a story way beyond architecture. The current congregation gathers around the visible half circle rail, while the circle is completed beyond time and space by those who have already died. The wholeness of that transcendent circle of all the saints makes a beautiful and powerful statement about the faith we profess and the hope to which we cling. We gather here, the congregation in 2017 – but we gather in communion with all the saints throughout time, beyond space.

The ‘communion of saints’ – we are part of it. You, me, your grandparents, Saint Augustine, Mother Teresa, Oscar Romero and a whole host of others – a motley crew of saints all of us. Old and young, dead and alive, short and tall, immigrant and native, democrat and republican and everything in-between, known to God by our best and truest name: Children of God.

This year, for the first time, we are going to do something a little bit different on All Saints. I’m giving slips of paper to everyone as they come in to worship and ask that they write the names of loved ones who have died on those slips of paper. Then, when they come up for communion, there will be three glass vases placed inside the altar rail where they can put the names. Then, we’ll share in communion together and remember that every time we gather there, those departed ones are also there.

That’s a comforting thought to me – to think of mom in her brown polyester polka-dot dress and grandma with her ever-present tissues tucked up her sleeve or down the front of her dress, my dad with his cane and shriveled hands, my friend Candy with her pile of brown curls and a lit menthol cigarette – all of them still here with me, our heads bowed, thanking God for life, love, family, friendship, so many mystical blessings that go way beyond time and space.


So It Goes

by Chris Pureka

You pack your sweaters for the fall
and the flowers die in their garden rows
and the warm words can’t help at all,
everybody knows…

You’re trying to find a compromise
between remembering and learning to forget,
so now just pouring a glass of water
is like trying to move boulders with your breath.

It’s so hard to see it all,
she tries to hold you in the night,
but you’re shaking you’re crying out,
praying for sleep to bless your bedside.

That’s right, so it goes,
the whole world folds over you.
Pack your handkerchief and your best shoes…

Reconciliation of guilt and grief,
it’s the hardest battle you’ve tried to win
and now every year you grit your teeth
as it cuts you underneath your skin.

Oh and Sunday mornings don’t bring you solace,
you are firm in your disbelief
but you hold tight to that old promise;
you are waiting for the spring,
you are waiting for the spring.

That’s right, so it goes,
the whole world folds over you.
Pack your handkerchief and your best shoes…

Don’t leave me breathing,
no not alone,
there’s so much more I meant to tell you.
I went by with flowers, just to see,
but that granite told me you’re still gone….

Don’t leave me breathing,
no not alone,
there’s so much more I meant to tell you…
I went by with flowers, just to see,
but the granite told me you’re still gone….

Twist of Fate

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

Stranger Things 2 was such a glorious television-watching experience that I find myself still thinking about it quite a bit in the days since I finished binge-watching all 9 episodes. The storyline was engaging, even gripping, but one of the parts I enjoyed the most was the soundtrack. It was pure 80’s gloriousness. I loved how they used Scorpion’s, “Rock You Like a Hurricane” to introduce Billy’s character, and the “Snow Ball” at the end was filled with delicious musical flashbacks for any kid who grew up in the 80’s. One of those songs was “Twist of Fate” by Olivia Newton John, a favorite when it came out in 1983 on the soundtrack of the movie, “Two of a Kind.” Olivia Newton John was the coolest as far as I was concerned – she was beautiful, thin, had a gorgeous voice, and she got to kiss John Travolta. What more could anyone want? Thank you, Stranger Things, for reminding me of some great music this season and in the last one as well. You have inspired some fun additions to my morning running playlist.

Plus, watching a show that takes place in the 80’s when I am now in my forties gave me much to think about. I know who the Steve, the Jonathan, the Billy were in my high school. I would have had a crush on all three at different times – but mostly Jonathan. Me? I was not the Nancy, I was the Barb. I think Barb would have probably turned out pretty cool when she grew up if she hadn’t been killed by the Monster from the Upside Down.

As I was scouring through Spotify looking for some more 80’s goodness, there was no shortage of top-40 hits to choose from. Yesterday as I was driving across the snowy Minnesota roads, I listened to Laura Branigan, Heart, Stevie Nicks, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Bonnie Tyler, Sheena Easton, and the Go-Gos. It was the soundtrack of my youth and brought back countless memories of listening to my clock radio and record player/tape deck at all hours, plus watching “Solid Gold” and waiting with anticipation to see the Solid Gold dancers count down the top hits of the week.

I was ten years old in 1980, so the 80’s was a formative decade for me. Looking back, I wonder if it was a scary time to be the mother of a daughter who was coming of age. There was so much big hair, shoulder pads, heavy make-up, and women who seemed to believe the only way they belonged on stage was by pouting their lips and giving a seductive backward glance. Or, perhaps more appropriately, this is how they were told they had to perform in order to keep their record deal? Either way, these were my role models growing up. The bigger I could get my hair, the better. The more blue and sparkly eye-shadow, the better. The make-up and the hair was easy. The hard part was figuring out how to appear sexy-cool like Madonna and Cher and not feel absolutely preposterous in the process. I never did figure that out.

When my musical tastes for me and for many shifted in the 90’s, it brought me joy that I could see myself more easily in some of my favorite singers. I was exposed to a wider variety of music than just what played on the radio stations in rural Minnesota and started going to concerts. I reveled in the Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Shawn Colvin, Kristen Hall, Alanis Morissette, and it was a joyful relief to see that none of them felt like they had to crawl on all fours across a stage or lick their lips seductively in music videos in order to get anyone’s attention. They wrote music and they sang heartfelt songs, wearing actual clothes, with hair that was not shellacked into place. The music was meaningful, too – about everything: rage, creativity, love, peace, solitude – a whole beautiful range of emotion. It was so contrary to the top-40 music I heard from women when I was growing up which was usually about love, sex, or a break-up. I don’t blame the female artists for this. I have no doubt the range of their music would have been much broader if it were up to them instead of being told they had to act and sing a certain way in order to be marketable.

Music became a means of communicating with other people as time went by. I began to understand others through the music they listened to and the importance they placed on music. Especially with men, music became the thing I had in common with them. I might be painfully awkward and shy and never know what to say when a cute boy was around – but if the topic turned to music, I was fine.  I knew who Bob Mould, Trip Shakespeare, and Run Westy Run were. I knew all their songs, had all their albums, and could hold my own in any conversation about them and their music. If you wanted to talk about Van Halen, the Billys or the Gear Daddies, I was your girl.  When other girls were largely uninterested in attending the Hole concert or standing in line at First Ave, or sifting through CD’s at Cheapo, I was interested and ready to go. I dated a few musicians and had a crush on absolutely scads of them. I could make a killer mix-tape, absolutely kick-ass mix tape! It still makes me sad that this is now a completely lost art.

After hanging around with enough guys who were music snobs, I became sufficiently snobbish about music as well. For my wedding dance I hand-crafted a playlist for the DJ and he was not to take any detours from that playlist. Apparently, I didn’t make this point emphatically enough because I was horrified when he started taking requests and “Boot-Scoot Boogie”, songs from the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar, and other unacceptable songs were polluting the air. It is my only bad memory from an otherwise altogether lovely wedding weekend.

I’m still a little snobbish when it comes to music. I like what I like. It’s the same way I am with clothing – I can’t really explain why I do or don’t like an article of clothing except that it has to feel good and look good and the fabric has to hang a certain way. With music, my playlists range from the saddest, softest folk tunes to Nine Inch Nails. I can’t explain why I like what I like except for I like the way it falls on my ears and makes me feel or remember.

These days, I don’t listen to hardly any Top-40 music except when my boys are in the car and they want to control the radio dial. Every now and then we have a song that we all like, but most of the time the music they choose is some horrid rap thing or inexplicable Taio Cruz-sort of music. I don’t like or understand it and it has become the surest sign to me that I am getting older. I’m sure the way I feel about their music is exactly the way my mom and dad used to feel when I would turn up my cassette player and listen to Prince and Sheila E. super loud.

Every generation is shaped by their music, aren’t they? My mom loved Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. She remained a steadfast fan her whole life. I’ll always have a soft spot for the Cure, the Smiths, the Pixies and the long summers and college friends they represent. Whenever I listen to Bon Jovi, I’ll think of the night I was first kissed by a lakeside campfire in northern Minnesota. Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffett recalls for me the day in 1977 my dad told us he was going to leave us, and I was heartbroken, yet secretly glad at the same time – but then he never did leave. The Tragically Hip and Amanda Marshall were the soundtrack for the years I was a new pastor in New York, weathering long winters, driving by the light of the Marlboro in my hand, and my last months of being single. When I was pregnant with my sons, I played the Samples and the Killers on high volume with the hopes that my boys would listen in utero and grow an affection for them as well.

Thank God for music. Seriously. My youngest son says he wants to be a musician when he gets older. While other parents might cringe at the possibility that their child is going to pursue an unpredictable, unstable life in the arts, I just smile and tell him, “You do that, son.” Make music. Create. Because every time you listen to the Muse and form something out of nothing, you shift the world a little bit – for yourself and for others.


Twist of Fate

Recorded by Olivia Newton-John

Do we deserve a second chance
How did we fall into this circumstance
We weren’t so straight and narrow
This is much more than we deserve

A higher voice has called the tune
Two hearts that lost the beat will now resume
The gift of life extension
By divine intervention

It’s gotta be a strange twist of fate
Telling me that Heaven can wait
Telling me to get it right this time
Life doesn’t mean a thing
Without the love you bring
Love is what we’ve found
The second time around

Don’t understand what’s going on
Woke up this morning all the hurt was gone
This is a new beginning
I’m back in the land of the living

It’s gotta be a strange twist of fate
Telling me that Heaven can wait
Telling me to get it right this time
Life doesn’t mean a thing
Without the love you bring
Love is what we’ve found
The second time around

Little Silver Ring

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

The music box stopped working.  It no longer makes a sound.

My mom did not have a lot of fancy things.  She and my dad lived very simply – partly out of necessity since Dad couldn’t work for most of his adult life due to his physical and emotional disabilities, but also because of a fierce thriftiness they both held.  If they could make something keep working, keep serving its’ purpose, no matter how bad it looked or how many times it had to be taped together to keep functioning, they kept using it.

Among the things I found in mom’s house were piles of notebooks in which were recorded every purchase, bill paid, and offering to the church, in other words – every single expenditure they had made – over the last fifty-two years.  And because mom and dad also didn’t believe in throwing things away, I also found my Grandmother’s notebooks where she had kept track of all of her purchases as well.

Every penny mattered.  They didn’t say things like “it’s just twenty bucks, why not get it?” – they said things like, “waste not, want not.”

There were times I felt my dad took this to the extreme – like when the window in my upstairs bedroom (which had a beautiful view of the hills and woods in the distance) broke and rather than get a new window, he just asked my brother to nail a board over it – first stuffing the window frame with insulation so that it could now keep the cold air out more efficiently.  The fact that my room was now a dark tomb with no natural light was not a consideration.

Or there was the car we had when my brother and I were small – one had to put a screwdriver somewhere in the engine in order to get it started.  Rather than fix whatever was causing this, mom and dad just dealt with it and drove it that way for years.

For a while, dad deemed water services too expensive and so for a long time we used the outhouse out back and filled jugs of water at my grandmother’s house in town to use for drinking and bathing.

I suspect I don’t really understand how tight finances were for my parents.  When dad was forced to retire from ministry due to his health, he received a small disability pension each month but it was very minimal.  It was small enough that we still qualified to receive government cheese and rice, and food stamps.  Mom couldn’t work because dad wasn’t well enough to take care of us kids, plus he needed her to care for him as well.

So we “made do.”

There’s so much of this I admire.  I imagine I would have all my student loans paid off by now if I managed my money and “made do” half as well as my parents did.  As it is, I lean toward the frivolous more often than I should.  Particularly with my children – I like to buy them things.  I think it shocked my mom when she came to stay with us how much stuff we bought for the kids.  I remember admitting to her, “They are spoiled.”  She did not deny it, she said simply, “Yes.  But they are cute.”

For however little material possessions mom wanted or needed during her life, it became even more extremely this way the last year of her life.  When she came to live with us, I ached to be able to ease sadness that she was carrying.  Since I didn’t know what else to do – I brought her little “treats” – things that she would normally have enjoyed – some nice soap or a pretty cup, some fresh stationery or even a tall, cold bottle of diet coke.  She politely thanked me and brought them into her room where she would place them carefully in her bedside drawer or closet.  She did not need them or want them or even barely consider them for longer than it took to store them away.

Sometimes I think she was just getting ready for what was coming next.  Her whole life she had needed so little but where she was going, there was nothing she would need.  I think all she really wanted was to go home, be with dad again, be done with her body that she had to stick needles in and medicate every day.

After mom died, my brother and I went through her house in Minnesota and took care of what was left behind. There was nothing of great value but much that was precious, of course.  One of the things I brought home was mom’s jewelry box.  It is pink with pink velveteen on the inside.  I remember as a child how I loved to open that pretty box and look at her treasures.  When I opened it after her death it still contained many of the same things I had remembered she kept in there: some earrings she used to wear when she was right out of college and worked in Minneapolis, her high school Letter, a locket with a picture of dad, and dad’s wedding ring.

I took dad’s ring and slipped it onto my thumb.  It had been just a few days before that I had put on mom’s wedding ring.  When she was in ICU they had to take it off her since her fingers were swelling so badly.  I had put it into a plastic bag along with the only other piece of jewelry she wore, a black hills silver ring I had given her some years before.  I told her I would hold onto them until she got out of the hospital.  The night she died, while I was still in the hospital room trying to gather the strength to stand and leave and go home, I kept looking at her hands and seeing the indent on her ring finger. I remembered the rings still in my purse.  I took them out and slipped both those rings on my finger.  I had planned to just bring them back to Minnesota and have them buried with her – but I couldn’t.  Her thin gold wedding band had been on her hand her whole life.  She had held us as babies while wearing that ring.  She had cared for my father wearing that ring.  While I felt it rightfully belonged buried on her finger, I couldn’t part with it.  I knew I somehow needed it to help me get through the rest of my life without her.

It makes no sense that a thin gold band should help me feel closer to my mom who cared so little for material things.  But maybe it does.  This ring was one thing that did matter to her.  It stood for a promise she made that mattered to her more than any other in her life.  I look at it and I can see her hands still.  Truthfully, I would give away every single thing I have before I would get rid of this ring.  It rests on my finger right below my own wedding band.  Like a reminder from my mom that promises and persistence matter.  She’s still teaching me, even now.

So anyway, the jewelry box – it had a music box in it.  Once upon a time it clinked out a little tune – that was part of its’ magic.  It was quite a few months after mom’s death and I had brought the jewelry box with me to Texas and placed it on my dresser when I noticed the small key on the back. I turned the key to see if it still worked and there was only silence.  I wish I remembered what song it used to play.

There is so much I wish I still remembered. Bit by bit, mom and dad, our life together when I was growing up – all of it is slowly fading. While there are things I will never forget, there’s just as much that is lost.

Is it lost, or is it just making room for what is new? Is it all perspective? It must be, because for some people, visiting a graveyard is sad and morose while for another person it is peaceful and thought-provoking. For one person, reading ancient scripture feels meaningless while for another, it is full of truth and wisdom.

So I am shifting my perspective from this: “I lost my mother six years ago today,” to something different:

Six years ago, I began to carry on the legacy of goodness and kindness my mother gave to me.

Six years ago, I released her into God’s care.

Six years ago, I said “see you later” to my mom. She’s waiting for me just beyond the veil.

Six years ago, I became the oldest female in my family line. For however premature it felt, I trust that whatever my grandmothers and my mother gave to me in wisdom and knowledge was enough to carry me through. It was enough for me to pass on to my children.

Six years ago, the world shifted in an uncomfortable way, but not an impossible way. I’m okay. I’ve weathered this grief and let it become a seed that will hopefully now grow new life.

silver ring


Little Silver Ring

The Samples

Growing old, wathing silver turn to gold
Snowing cold, why aren’t you here for me to hold?
In a dream somewhere finding my way home
Then a change of scene
The rest took place in Ancient Rome

Was I a king?
Pretty ladies all around
I gave one a ring
So satisfied in who we found

Didn’t make much sense
But we loved to do our thing
Behind her fence
And behind her little silve ring

That turned to gold That turned to gold

Growing old, watching silver turn to gold
Snowing cold, why aren’t you here for me to hold

Didn’t make much sense
But we loved to do our thing
Behind her fence
And behind her little silver ring

That turned to gold
That turned to gold



Reflections on Shuffle Play

Twenty-one years ago today, I left an internship at a church in Wyoming. I was supposed to be there for a whole year but ended up being there two months. It had been the perfect storm of me needing affirmation in the gifts I had for ministry, but receiving instead daily verbal abuse and experiencing indescribable loneliness. I have never felt more like a failure than I did the day as I drove away from that church and that experience.

I didn’t think I would return to seminary or to the path leading me to ordained ministry. I truly believed I was out for good, unfit to serve God as a pastor. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but it was apparently going to be something else. Bridge burned. Over. I didn’t say goodbye to a soul. I didn’t even go back to my office to pick up my books – I just started driving East and vowed to never return to that sorry town.

But then, a few months later, after a whole lot of beer and prayer, I did go back to seminary and went on to complete another internship and now I have been a pastor for 18 years and a few months.

This afternoon I had lunch with a friend who is in the midst of seminary and just found out she is leaving her internship church – an extremely unhealthy church. Unlike me, she is going about her ending differently, better: she told the bishop about all that she was going through, she got help, and the bishop is getting her out of there and into a different, hopefully healthier church. She was able to ask for help and I’m so proud of her for that.

I wish I had known how to ask for help twenty-one years ago. Instead, I drowned in the shame that I hated where I was and I hated how my supervisor was speaking to me. I blamed myself. I believed fully that if I were just better/stronger/more outgoing/prettier/thinner/etc. that my supervisor would be a nice person and I wouldn’t feel like I was going to die every time I drove up to that church. I did talk to my seminary about how hard things were, but when they did nothing to help, I wish I would have demanded they listen to me, demanded they help or get me out of there. Instead, I tried for two months to suck it up and tough it out until I realized the survival of something deep within me was at stake.  I packed up my truck in the dead of night and drove away. I smoked ten thousand cigarettes and cried an ocean. I said, “I’m sorry, God” on repeat until I crossed the Wyoming/South Dakota border. I was crushed by my sadness and shame. Even when I finally did go back to seminary, I slunk around the halls trying to take up as little space as possible. I felt called to be back there, but I also wished I could just be invisible. I didn’t want to talk about what had happened. I saw the entire situation as such a personal failure of mine that I would often lie and make up some story about how the internship supervisor had left and so my internship just ended early. It was only when I began to tell the truth about what happened that I began to heal, and I began to see the event with clarity.

It’s so long ago now, and I hardly ever think of it except for when I talk with someone else who is having a hard time maneuvering through some hurdle of life. I listen to how they are handling it and I think about that autumn in Wyoming.

I hadn’t known how to demand help. That is not surprising. I was raised to not make a fuss, to deal with problems quietly, secretly even. It’s like Dar Williams sings in her song, “Iowa:”

“But way back where I come from,
We never mean to bother,
We don’t like to make our passions other people’s concern,
And we walk in the world of safe people,
And at night we walk into our houses and burn.”

I never knew anyone who actually spoke about their negative feelings – rather, I watched people bottle up emotions until they exploded in anger, tears, or were submerged in alcohol. Problems weren’t tackled, rather they were a sign of failure and a source of shame. The only solution was silence and secrecy.

I’m not sure where that comes from but it is common among those with Scandinavian heritage. We like to joke about it sometimes but it is really no laughing matter. Does not talking about difficulties come from a sense of not wanting to complain? From knowing that it could always be worse so why torture yourself with festering about it? Move on. Get over it. Have a good cry alone in the bathroom and that is that?

The last twenty-one years have been a long process of learning as an adult how to communicate better and live authentically. I still have plenty of room to grow when it comes to communication, but I am pretty good at defending my right to do what I feel called toward and staying away from what steals my joy. I don’t have patience for toxic people or toxic situations anymore. I don’t feel it is my duty to suffer them – and somehow making up my mind about that must have changed something in the air around me, because while I used to seem to attract toxicity, I no longer do.

Sometimes I think about how I would have handled my Wyoming internship if I had encountered it later in life. It is impossible to know, and ultimately, while it is an awful memory, I am certain it was a necessary stepping stone in my life. At some point each one of us must face an asshole, a horrible situation, get pissed off, and then see what we do. I could look back that time and see it as I did for a very long time: weakness because I didn’t leave gracefully, because I didn’t know how to respond perfectly, because I didn’t demand help in a way so that my seminary actually helped me…OR…I can see it as I choose to see it now: strength – how I took a baseball bat to that experience and smashed it when I realized it was killing me. My departure may not have been smooth, but it was effective.

And while the experience was devastating, as is often the case, beauty came out of the ashes of it. Dear friends, extraordinary adventures, travel, even getting reacquainted with the man I married – so many good things came out of the fact that I left that awful internship. In the long run it didn’t matter how I left, all that matters was that I did leave and I moved on. For all the pain that short period of time brought to my life, no one would hardly remember it anymore except that I still feel the need to tell the story now and then.

These days I can’t help but do that – because I understand that telling the stories of our difficulties is important. It’s medicinal, life-saving.  I never would have believed it when I was growing up and so busy learning how to keep secrets and isolate when there was any kind of trouble. But time has revealed to me that when we have a survival story to tell, it cuts us when we keep it inside, but it heals us when we let others know.  Our survival stories assure others that they will survive, too. Telling the truth and sharing compassion is so much better than hiding in the safety of silence.

So, twenty-one years ago right now I was at a Bible Camp in North Dakota for the night. I drove directly there after I left Wyoming because I had worked there a few summers before and the director was a friend of mine – and I had an immense, all-consuming crush on him. Perhaps I was hoping my terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad luck would start turning around and he would turn into Prince Charming and sweep me away from the shit-hole my life felt like that night. That didn’t happen. But, he did build me a fire and let me sleep on a couch in the retreat center. He didn’t ask any questions about why I was roaming like a cigarette-smoke covered ghost through North Dakota on Halloween night, just gave me a “hello friend” hug and a warm place to stay before he left to go to a Halloween party.  I stared at the fire until I fell asleep, left before dawn to keep driving and crying and driving some more. I made it the rest of the way to my parents’ house in Minnesota and mom welcomed me in.  She had my favorite supper waiting.



By Dar Williams

I’ve never had a way with women,
But the hills of Iowa make me wish that I could
And I’ve never found a way to say I love you,
But if the chance came by, oh I, I would
But way back where I come from,
We never mean to bother,
We don’t like to make our passions other people’s concern,
And we walk in the world of safe people,
And at night we walk into our houses and burn.


How I long to fall just a little bit,
To dance out of the lines and stray from the light,
But I fear that to fall in love with you
Is to fall from a great and gruesome height.
So I asked a friend about it, on a bad day,
Her husband had just left her,
She sat down on the chair he left behind, she said,
“What is love, where did it get me?
Whoever thought of love is no friend of mine.”

Once I had everything,
I gave it up for the shoulder of your driveway
And the words I’ve never felt.
And so for you, I came this far across the tracks,
Ten miles above the limit, and with no seatbelt, and I’d do it again,
For tonight I went running through the screen doors of discretion,
For I woke up from a nightmare that I could not stand to see,
You were a-wandering out on the hills of Iowa,
And you were not thinking of me.








Leave the Light On

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

The season of white, gray, and cold has begun. The wind is whirling snow past my window and clawing at the front doors of the church. Every now and then, the building creaks, but my office is warm.

It is the brief lull between Reformation Sunday and All Saints Sunday. My mother died during this lull in 2011. I remember leaving the Fall festival on Reformation Sunday at our church to go to the hospital to see her. By that night I knew she was dying. She was so weary, so frail. I stayed as close to her bedside as I could while gracious friends watched my little boys. In the brief moments when she was awake, she was no longer speaking to me, but to loved ones beyond time and space. She smiled and laughed as you do when you see old friends. If I tried to interject and say something, she almost looked dismayed. Her sights were no longer set on me, on this realm. She was looking ahead, looking forward, already gone in so many ways. Her body just had to catch up.

It was a Tuesday night when she died. It was an early Wednesday morning when she died. It was All Saints Day. It was All Souls Day. It was November 1. It was November 2. Both are true to me because when I fell asleep on the hospital couch in her room on All Saints day, my mother was still breathing. When I woke up on All Souls Day, I could no longer hear her breathing in the darkness and I knew she was gone. I waited a few minutes before I went to turn on the light.  I knew as soon as I saw her it would be real that she was gone.

Finally, I got up and moved toward the light switch. I turned on the light and looked toward the bed and there she was. Her skin already yellowing, her life had slipped away while I slept. I sat next to her as the nurses came in and out with their questions, helping me process what needed to happen next. Looking at her face was so hard because she really didn’t look like her already – so I looked at her arms, her hands. I thought about all those hands had held – me and my brother when we were babies, they had cared for my dad all the years he was sick, they had typed up church bulletins and newsletters, manuscripts, they had done countless loads of laundry and dishes, baked bread and birthday cakes, they had journeyed to beautiful places and hard places, they had held the handkerchief she carried around for when tears snuck up on her, they had held a whole lifetime, and now their work was done.

In slow motion I made the calls I needed to make. It was still the middle of the night and the world was sleeping – my husband, my brother – I left them messages to tell them mom had died. With no one in my family awake to talk to me at that bleak hour, the funeral director from Minnesota, who had handled my father’s funeral the year before, was a warm and welcome voice. His northern accent was comforting as I sat there in that Texas hospital. He sounded like home.

The city of Waco was hushed as I walked out to my car. I think it was raining slightly as I drove and cried and drove some more. The hospital was about an hour from my house. I noted to myself how the world felt so different now, and of course, it was. It was now a world that no longer had my mother’s smile, voice, wisdom in it. This world is still sorely lacking for having lost those precious things.

And now somehow six years have passed since that night/morning. I’ve gone to sleep and woken up thousands of times in a world where mom isn’t anymore. My boys hardly remember her but they know well my stories of her. They know that their mom loved her mom and there’s a well of sadness that still springs up out of me sometimes, and that’s okay. My shiny stone of grief I carry around is precious to me because it’s one of the ways I hold on to her.

But it is just one of the ways. There are so many other ways I remember her, too – and as the years pass, I want to be better at remembering her differently.

I want to remember her with laughter because she loved to laugh. Her laugh was like silver bells over the snow: light and sweet. She laughed easily and often.

I want to remember her with friendship because she treasured her friends. Being married to my dad was hard work and so it was her friends who saved her and brought her joy. She made time for them and they were fiercely devoted to each other.

I want to remember her by being a kick-ass mom. She loved being a mother and she was so good at building a home. Not necessarily the tasks of being a housewife – she hated cleaning, she wasn’t a great cook, she cared little about decorating, but she knew how to make a home. She made time for us kids, giving us herself, always.

I want to remember her by welcoming my years. Mom was not vain. She never colored her hair. She never wore makeup. She was fully herself and present in whatever age she was at. She didn’t have time for nonsense. She lived the life God gave her, neither rushing the years nor wishing for the past to return.

I want to remember her by being me. That’s all she ever wanted for me. She gave me roots and then she gave me wings and she would be so disappointed if I didn’t fly. She was proud of me no matter what I did – when I stayed close to home and when I adventured.

It does me no good to build a monument of pain in memory of her. I didn’t mean to do that, but in many ways I have. I’ll always think of her, miss her, tell stories about her, but I don’t want the narrative I tell about my mom for the rest of my days to be full of sadness when her life was not that way. She was joy and laughter and friendship, welcome, gentleness, a loud “yes” to love and goodness.

Where I grew up, about five miles outside a small town in northern Minnesota, we had a yard light out by the garage. If my brother or I were out past dark, mom would turn on that yard light so that we would have a light to welcome us home. It was such a small thing, but so lovely to turn the corner onto our lonesome gravel road and see that light in the distance. It was mom saying, “I’m thinking of you. Be safe! Come home soon. Welcome back.” She continued to do that long after we had moved away from home – if we were coming for a visit and arrived after dark, the light would be on.

A few years before mom and dad died, they were both in the nursing home for a while and I came back to Minnesota to see them. I flew in at night and drove up to the house. It was going to be the first time in my whole life I would sleep in that house alone.  It was the dead of winter and as I approached, there was no light on to welcome me – everything was silent and still. Mom had told me the heat would be on and to make myself at home, but without the light to welcome me, the place felt alien and I just wanted to go sleep in a hotel. I probably would have if I weren’t already exhausted from travel and if there had been a hotel anywhere nearby. I stayed that night at the house but hardly slept at all. The house creaked in sadness as the wind and snow pelted against it. The rest of the nights I was in Minnesota I stayed on the extra bed in mom’s nursing home room. Being close to her was all the light I needed.

Perhaps the rest of my days, my task is to remember to leave the light on for other people. For my children, by loving them the best I can, giving them a warm and welcoming place to call home. For my congregation, by pointing them toward Jesus and helping our church be a place of grace. For my friends, by being supportive and listening, and sharing of myself. For strangers, by not being afraid to let others in. Offer help. Offer a smile. Offer my time.

Leave the light on. This is how I choose to remember my mom for the rest of my days to come.

light on


Leave the Light On

By Beth Hart

I seen myself with a dirty face,
I cut my luck with a dirty ace
I leave the light on
I went from zero to minus ten
I drank your wine then
I stole your man
I leave the light on,
I leave that light on.

Daddy ain’t that bad he just plays rough
I ain’t that scarred when I’m covered up
I leave the light on
Little girl hiding underneath the bed was it something I did
Must be something I said
I leave the light on, better leave the light on.

I want to love
I want to live
I don’t know much about it
I never did seventeen and I’m all messed up inside
I cut myself just to feel alive
I leave the light on twenty one on the run
on the run on the run from myself

From myself and everyone
I leave the light on, I leave the light on
Better leave the light on.

Cause I want to love
I want to live
I don’t know much about it
I never did,
I don’t know what to do, can the damage be undone
I swore to God that I’d never be what I’ve become
Lucky stars and fairy tales
I’m gonna bathe myself in a wishin’ well
Pretty scars from cigarettes
I never will forget, I never will forget
I’m still afraid to be alone
wish that moon would follow me home
I leave the light on
I ain’t that bad I’m just messed up
I ain’t that sad but I’m sad enough
God bless the child with the dirty face who cuts her luck with a dirty ace
She leaves the light on, I leave that light on